Fantasy Films 101.08 1986's "Labyrinth"
A gaggle of goblins and their king kidnap a bouncing babe from his silly sister, leaving the lass just thirteen thrilling hours to muddle through a maze known only as The Labyrinth, a favorite fantasy film from some of the finest in the business, and the subject of this week's column.
Released in theaters in 1986, Labyrinth was blessed by an amazing behind-the-scenes cast, all of whom helped make this a tremendous hit among fantasy film fans. Directed by Jim Henson, produced by George Lucas, scripted by Monty Python's Terry Jones, and featuring conceptual design by Brian Froud, there's absolutely nothing here to dislike. Unless you hate wonderful, simple little bits of fantastic nonsense. But then, you wouldn't be reading this if you did, would you?
Anyway, the story's as simple as this: poor Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) has to babysit her stupid brother Toby (Toby Froud), and her stepmother and father don't even care. And to make matters worse, her brother's a little brat, crying and screaming, stealing her teddy bear, and generally being a nuisance. Fantasizing, Sarah idly wishes that goblins would take Toby away... and they do.
Shocked into realization, Sarah tries to bargain with the shapeshifting goblin king, Jareth (Gordon Matthew Sumner), but he's not interested in going back on a wish, and besides, he's looking for some nookie. Knowing he's got the advantage, he makes a deal with Sarah all the same. If she can get to the castle beyond the goblin city (which is in turn beyond the labyrinth) within 13 hours, she can have her brother back. If not, her brother becomes a goblin forever (which would probably have thrilled Brian Froud to no end).
Sarah's first encounter in the labyrinth is with a dwarf-like creature called Hoggle (Shari Weiser/Brian Henson), who's busily spraying faeries with pesticide. Helping Sarah into the labyrinth is only the first of the things he'll do for her (tasks including both saving her life and betraying her to Jareth).
Sarah then goes on to meet a bizarre assortment of weird creatures, including a talking worm (phallic symbol, anyone?), talking doors, talking hands, a talking hat and its wise man, a huge beast named Ludo who can sing to rocks, and a dog named Didymus and his mount Ambrosius. She's also betrayed by Hoggle (sort of), almost cut to pieces by a goblin food processor, attacked by "Fireys" who can remove their heads, rescued by Hoggle (sort of), nearly plunged into the Bog of Eternal Stench, given a poisoned peach that traps her in a dreamworld, and forced into a battle with a town full of goblins.
Meanwhile, Jareth sings a few songs from his award-winning album, "Ten Summoner's Tales" until eventually Sarah manages to use cunning, trickery and the help of her new friends to get inside the castle. Then it's just a matter of finding her way through a series of Escher-esque staircases to a final showdown with Jareth. Of course, she rescues Toby and heads back to the real world, where she decides that it's time to leave childhood things behind and grow up a little bit, as all her new labyrinth friends crowd around like the end of The Muppet Show.
Despite weighing in at 101 minutes, this story is delightfully simple, with just a few key elements carrying it along:
- A young hero. In this case, a young heroine, who is also...
- A damsel in distress. Who in this case, is also the hero. There's also her kid brother, but he's just an excuse. The one who's really in danger throughout the story is her; physically, if you accept the labyrinth as reality, or emotionally, if you opt to go for the whole psychological allegory thing.
- A motley band of companions. Goblins, dwarves, rock-singing monsters, talking dogs, all physical extensions of...
- The Labyrinth. There's no magic sword or golden armor here, just a living, breathing, ever-changing landscape that's both friend and foe at the same time. As it turns out, the land itself is even more deadly than those that inhabit it, the...
- Wicked evil bad guys. There's nobody more evil than goblins, and this movie is full of 'em... even if they are a little bit incompetent. And then there's Sting, the Goblin King himself, looking evil in the tight leather pants he'd wear as he went on to fame in the World Wrestling Federation years later.
- Unbeatable odds. This one depends on your take on the story too. If this is real, then Sarah's up against the power of a wizard and his magical labyrinth. If it's all in her head, then she's facing her own demons and doubts... which is actually a tougher opponent than anything else she might go up against.
Obviously, the film is played pretty fast and loose, taking on a much lighter tone than the oft-compared Dark Crystal. But you don't have to have singing kings and silly goblins if you don't feel it would fit into your campaign setting. Just keep the following in mind:
- The lines between good and evil are very blurry in this place, which like the Forest of Wayreth in the Dragonlance novels can come and go and change itself around as it sees fit, even basing its twisting shape on the capabilities, fears and doubts of those traveling within. Friends may turn out to be foes, foes may become friends, and who knows whether or not anyone's telling the truth?
- Time is of the essence, even if it does tend to change once in a while. The characters don't have forever to get through the labyrinth before them, and if they miss their deadline, then something bad will happen. How bad? That's up to you. But if you want to take a clue from the movie...
- A small child has been kidnapped by goblins (or orcs, or demons, or whatever), and if the characters don't rescue him, all hell will break loose. Does the child fulfill a prophecy, like Elora Danan in Willow? Maybe it's the heir to the throne, with the kingdom in chaos? Or perhaps it's simply a younger sibling, or even the son or daughter, of one of the characters. Whoever it is, they can't help themselves, and they're depending on the characters to save them.
It goes without saying that this nifty little story is an obvious fit for just about any campaign setting, being the equivalent of a dungeon, a fantasy village and a wizard's castle all in one (no doubt the three most-used locales for any fantasy campaign). This one's definitely a one-nighter, unless you're being sadistic and want to trap the characters in a maze for an extended period of time.
But you wouldn't do that... would you?
Next week, we'll take a look at the finest fantasy flick 1987 had to offer, featuring a noble hero, a princess, some bumbling bad guys, a memorable story, and some of the best one-liners ever: Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren.
Just kidding. It's The Princess Bride.
Oh, and yes, I know it's David Bowie, not Sting. It's an inside joke. Just go with it.